In beautiful old St. Mary’s Church, inside Fort St. George, Gunasundari sits behind an upturned teak bench. To her right is a tidy pile of cane strips; behind her, a bucket of water. With nimble fingers, she stretches and twists the cane, fashioning it into the backrest of a chair. “I learnt cane-weaving in 1976, when I was a teenager,” says Gunasundari. “We used to live in Royapettah, and the owner of Jayabharatham Furniture taught the skill to nearly 5,000 of us. All our families survived because of this skill,” she smiles.
Gunasundari, 52, began working on the cane after school and during holidays. “Back then, it wasn’t sold like this,” she points to the long, even strips from Andaman. “Those days, the men would slice and shave the cane and the women would do the weaving.” When she was 18, Gunasundari started earning a daily wage of Rs.6. “It was good money, I was so happy with that.”
Cane furniture was very popular in the 70s, but was replaced slowly by metal and wood, which are far easier to maintain. Thanks to this, re-caning is no longer a popular vocation. “The men have moved on to making jhoolas and sofa-sets. But cane is wonderful for the back. It’s very comfortable, and it does not generate heat,” she says. Yet, ironically, sitting down all day, bent over her work, Gunasundari is prone to lower-back pain and usually goes through a bottle of Amrutanjan in three days.
But Gunasundari is still grateful for the job that has helped her support her family. “I make Rs.200 for an eight-hour day, excluding what I’ve spent on raw material,” she says. She has been careful with her money and saved up for her children. Her son is now a mechanic and the families live together in a rented house in Porur.
Work is scarce, though. “I find work for just three months a year. Who appreciates old cane furniture anymore?” she asks. There are 15 designs in cane weaving. Gunasundari shows me the neat diamond pattern on the seat. “I learnt this design first; the rest I picked up later by observing others. In the 80s, I taught the art to some visually challenged people; it gave them a livelihood. I am happy to teach anybody interested even today.”
As we speak, Gunasundari’s hands have been busy, dipping cane strips into water to make them soft and pliable, before pulling them through the eyelets on the wood. “Yes, it’s hard work,” she agrees, holding out her chafed palms. “Look at my hands! They’re so rough.” “But I still wish I could do this 365 days a year. I really want the craft to survive,” says Gunasundari, swiftly knotting one strip imperceptibly with the next. The art continues, at least for now.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)